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Thinking Kink: Swinging Both Ways (Christian Grey Included)

a switch with an off and an on positionChristian Grey is not actually a Dominant. Yes, you read that right. No, not because the "baddie" of 50 Shades of Grey is actually kind of a big softie and not really that scary. Not because he doesn't make his submissive, Anastasia Steele wear a collar and chastity belt day and night. But because his dominant side is only one part of a complex man (I know I'm pushing your credulity here readers, but stick with me). One thing that's been lost in all this "evil dominant man/naive submissive girl" hoo-ha is the fact that Christian Grey used to be a submissive. Doesn't get mentioned a lot, does it? So, technically Mr. Grey, CEO isn't a Dominant. Instead he is what's known in the BDSM community as a "Switch." The media's tendency to shove people into simple little boxes means that switches rarely get mentioned or depicted, even though switch-y behavior is actually everywhere once you start to look for it. Some of the most vehement  criticisms of Rihanna's "S&M" video have been aimed at the scenes where she appears as a submissive, but there's much less mention of the part where she's walking Perez Hilton around on a leash, or taping up the mouth of a terrified reporter.

Of course, Madonna was already switching like mad in the '90s—see her "Human Nature" video, where she alternates between being held hostage by a cast of foxy dancers, and spanking one of them. Jay Wiseman, author of S/M 101 (one of the most widely recommended introductions to BDSM), says that while "most people do come to prefer one role or the other ... nobody is 100% dominant or submissive." Wiseman goes on to say that, although primarily dominant himself, "I have had many of my most profound SM moments while playing my not-usual role." Maggie Gyllenhaal in Secretary

Not only do many people in the BDSM community regularly switch roles, or at least sample "the other side," but even when "in role" people do not necessarily live up to stereotypes of being either whimpering and servile or brutal and sadistic. We see elements of this in Lee, submissive protagonist of the movie Secretary (and yes, I'll write more about it soon folks, I promise). Intoxicated by the spanking she has received from E. Edward Grey, her troubled boss, Lee starts "topping from the bottom" by deliberately making typing mistakes so that her dominant will "punish" her some more.

BDSM educators Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy, authors of the wonderful New Bottoming Book, identify respectively as "a bottom who also tops" and "a switch." Easton and Hardy also make the interesting distinction between the patriarchal model of "power over" ("I can increase my power by taking some of yours") and "power with"—exchanging and constantly building upon each other's power, whether it's the power to wield the whip or the power to take the pain. This way of looking at BDSM relationships implies a constant flow of power between two partners, rather than a black-and-white "conquer/surrender" model. It also reminds us that there's a lot more to BDSM than just dominants on top, submissives on the bottom, and no switchies.

Even Freud managed to identify the existence of switches, observing that the desire to give pain and the desire to receive pain "are regularly encountered together in the same person." So whence Mr. C. Grey, CEO, hmmm? Well, something no one appears to have noticed in the hurry to focus on the relationship between Grey and Anastasia (which is allegedly evidence that all women want to be "entrapped and tortured by rich and powerful men"—actual words in a UK newspaper this week), is Grey's admission early on in the book that he spent six years as a submissive to an older women. As Anastasia muses when she finds out, "He knows what it's like" (author's italics). Or, as Jay Wiseman says, "taking the other role at least occasionally gives you an empathy, perspective and understanding that you just can't acquire any other way."

Perhaps there'd a lot less fascination with "Corrupting Dom" Christian Grey if we viewed him as a switch, or at least as a "reformed submissive." His ambiguous kink status certainly shows up the ignorance of commentators who claim that 50 Shades is evidence that men just want to perform "humiliation and savage domination" upon women. Mr Grey's six years of submission beg to differ. And perhaps that's the beauty of the switch, and the beauty in recognizing the fluidity of sexual roles rather than asking people to jam themselves into media-soundbite-friendly boxes. As Anne McLintock puts it in her article on commercial fetishism and gender power, "S/M performs social power ... as sanctioned neither by fate nor by God, but by social convention and invention, and thus [constantly] open to historical change."

Previously: The Appeal of the Submissive Male, Masculinity and Submission

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Comments

7 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Fascinating distinction

Fascinating distinction between "power over" and "power with"--strong implications for the feminist effects of the kink community.

"Topping from the Bottom"

This is an interesting article that makes some very valid points. On the nitpicky side, I would not describe what Leigh does in Secretary as topping from the bottom. Rather, she is a bratty submissive. She doesn't tell her dom what to do, but she does act out as a way of getting attention.

There is a lot of time spent in 50 Shades debating whether or not Ana is a submissive. The argument is that she is not submissive because she does not like pain, which is BS. There are definitely submissives who are not masochists. Based on what I have read, I would define Ana as a Service Sub. She enjoys the pain only because it makes Christian happy.

Re: Secretary

I disagree. I don't think Lee just 'wants attention' from E. Edward Grey. She wants something very specific (another spanking!) and she is deliberately making typing mistakes so she will get it. Therefore she is exercising control/manipulation from the bottom.

I agree that it's a misconception you have to like pain to be a submissive - see my second post Debunking BDSM myths!

In the BDSM community it is

In the BDSM community it is common, and indeed recommended, that Dominants take a sumbissive role at least a few times so that they "know what it's like". That doesn't make you a Switch. Christian Grey is emphatically *not* a Switch. He does not engage in fluidity of role with Ana or with his other partners. Is a gay man who slept with a woman in high school magically a bisexual now? Nope.

I think it's a grey area...

...pun slightly intended! I agree that taking the other role occasionally doesn't make you a switch, and I did not say this in my post - the point I'm trying to get across is that there is more fluidity in roles than a vanilla audience may realise, and that this means most people are somewhere on a 'switch-y' spectrum rather than 100% one role or the other.

Also, I'm not sure that there is a hard and fast definition of a 'switch' that means one has to constantly be changing role. The comparison with a gay man who slept with a woman once does not stand - Christian Grey was a submissive for six years, which can hardly be dismissed as a passing phase in his life. I know people who were completely submissive for a long time, changed to the 'other side' and are now completely dominant, but still identify themselves as switches. I think this is because their time spent playing the other role was a significant part of their life and identity, therefore they consider it still worth naming as part of who they are. I think we could say the same goes for Mr Grey.

However we label Mr Grey, what interests me most is how no one in the media, when writing about the whole 50 Shades phenomenon, mentions his submissive past. This to me implies a need to categorise kinky people as only dom or sub, and I'm not sure that's always helpful.

I have been into BDSM as a

I have been into BDSM as a Domme for years and agree experimenting to know what the opposite role is like to not grounds to by labeled a "switch." But your comparison is not fair. It is like a man spending years with a woman in his teenage years, enjoying it, going to men afterward but regressing back into someone attracted to women when deeply upset by a man in the future.

There is a spectrum. Not everything is black and white. Clearly dominant is Christian's primary role, but his submissive side cannot be dismissed completely.

(That said I can't imagine being a switch but all the power to those who can!)

And wow, excuse the gross

And wow, excuse the gross amount of spelling errors. It's not easy to play with a kitten and type at the same time.